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Anti-War Presidential Bid Causes Headache for Kremlin

Even if he is ultimately barred from running, Boris Nadezhdin’s campaign has shown anti-war Russians that they are not alone.

Published on January 29, 2024

An attempt by Russia’s longshot independent candidate Boris Nadezhdin to collect enough signatures to stand in the March presidential election has generated political shockwaves. Over 200,000 people have so far turned out to support the openly anti-war politician, with long lines forming outside signature collection points all over the country. Amid Russia’s crackdown on dissent, those standing in such lines are making a conscious political statement. Ultimately, the most likely scenario is that Nadezhdin will not be allowed to run. But his success will be noted by both the Russian establishment and the country’s silent opposition.

When Nadezhdin’s name was first floated as a possible candidate, most experts assumed he would run a tame campaign in close coordination with the Kremlin. The aim of permitting such a candidacy would have been to add a bit of diversity to the spectacle, increase turnout, and—when he inevitably received a tiny number of votes—to crow about how unpopular liberal politicians are in Russia.

For most of his career, Nadezhdin has been active in political groups loyal to the Kremlin. He has worked with the ruling United Russia party (unsuccessfully standing in their primaries), and also attempted (again unsuccessfully) to get on the ballot for governor elections in the Moscow region. Most significantly, Nadezhdin is known for his ties to the Kremlin’s powerful domestic politics overseer, Sergei Kiriyenko, to whom he has been close for over twenty-five years. When Kiriyenko was briefly prime minister in 1998, Nadezhdin served as his aide.

His biography illustrates that Nadezhdin is accustomed to trying to use Kremlin-sponsored political projects as a way of achieving his own personal and political goals. He’s a very long way from being an opposition firebrand.

The Kremlin has been discussing the idea of allowing a tame liberal candidate to take part in the elections for months. Nadezhdin’s record means he would have been a good pick for this role, and it’s very likely there were some preliminary negotiations. However, it seems the idea was ultimately ditched by the Kremlin, and Nadezhdin decided to go it alone.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about the authorities seeking to sponsor candidates in this way. And it’s well known that the system rewards tame candidates who play their role well, and do not cross any red lines. The Kremlin’s “liberal candidate” in the 2018 presidential election, for example, was the socialite and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, who received just over 1 percent of the vote. After it was over, she suddenly won a lot of new business contracts, and got access to high-profile media projects. So there’s every reason to assume this was Nadezhdin’s plan: perhaps as his reward he hoped to be allowed to win a seat in the State Duma, or at least a regional parliament.

Now, however, Nadezhdin is on a very different path. The nature of his public statements mean there is no way he is currently acting as a spoiler candidate, or being curated by Kremlin managers. His election manifesto states that Putin is “dragging Russia back to the past,” that “Putin made a fatal mistake” when he went to war in Ukraine, and that the country is “racing toward medieval feudalism and obscurantism.” The Kremlin would never agree to anyone saying such things.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what inspired Nadezhdin to mount a genuine opposition campaign. Perhaps the bold slogans were simply supposed to pressure the Kremlin into another round of negotiations about approving his candidacy. Perhaps Nadezhdin, a veteran politician, decided to take a gamble. What’s far more important is that he quickly became a magnet for Russians who are opposed to the war in Ukraine, and who want to see a change of regime.

Polls indicate that despite supposedly high levels of support for Putin, most Russians are tired of war and want an end to the fighting. Nadezhdin is the only politician in Russia—at least among those not behind bars—who has taken an anti-war position so openly. Exiled political figures, including those close to the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, have helped mobilize their supporters in Russia to provide signatures for Nadezhdin’s presidential bid.

As a result, turning out to support Nadezhdin has become a safe and legal way to express political opposition. Indeed, as lines formed outside the buildings where signatures were being gathered, they began to look more and more like opposition protests. Anti-war Russians could see they were not alone. As all this unfolded, Nadezhdin sought to ride the wave, criticizing Putin and the regime more and more fiercely.

In fact, the lines appeared primarily because Nadezhdin’s headquarters had not been expecting such support, and were severely stretched. Paradoxically, though, this played into their hands, and images of people lining up to support an anti-war candidate quickly spread online.

The value of these images was not simply emotional. Data reveals the number of signatures collected by Nadezhdin for his presidential bid in Russia’s regions roughly corresponds to the size of local opposition protests in recent years. In other words, Nadezhdin has proved that not all those opposed to the current regime have left the country.

What will happen next? More likely than not, the Central Election Commission will simply bar Nadezhdin from running. There are many precedents for the commission carrying out the Kremlin’s wishes in this way: handwriting experts simply deem some of the collected signatures to have been faked and therefore invalid, and if a legal challenge is mounted in response, the courts back them up.

If and when Nadezhdin is disqualified, there will not be any significant street protests: the risks for participants are just too high. Even so, the men and women who stood in line for him have acquired experience of political participation, and will be on the lookout for other opportunities to express their opposition. Nadezhdin’s supporters could also prove an electoral headache for officials who are trying to ensure both a record turnout at this election, and Putin’s highest ever vote share.

Most importantly of all, Nadezhdin’s campaign has had the opposite effect to that intended by Kremlin spin doctors. While they wanted to use him to show the unpopularity of democratic ideas, they have achieved the opposite. Images of people lining up in support of an anti-war, anti-Putin candidate have proven there are still many Russians who desire political change.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.